WICKER PARK — Each summer, lively street festivals bring artisans, performers and food vendors from across the city to Wicker Park, Bucktown and West Town.
The biggest festivals — Wicker Park Fest, Do Division and West Fest Chicago — are presented by local chambers of commerce.
The chambers ask festival-goers for $5 or $10 donations, and pledge that the money directly benefits the respective communities.
But for nearly a decade, neighborhood leaders have asked: Where is the money going?
“We have Chicago’s ‘best street festival of the summer’ that gives no money back to the community,” said Leah Root, a board member of the Wicker Park Committee. The chamber disputes that claim — but refuses to disclose how it spends its money, even to neighborhood leaders.
For nearly a decade, Root and others have been asking the Wicker Park Bucktown Chamber of Commerce and the West Town Chamber of Commerce for answers to no avail.
In 2014, presidents of the Bucktown Community Organization, Wicker Park Committee, Chicago Grand Neighbors Association, Ukrainian Village Neighborhood Association and the East Village Association drafted a letter asking that festival organizers turn over their books.
The Wicker Park Bucktown Chamber of Commerce director at the time said no. The West Town Chamber of Commerce met with Ukrainian Village leaders in private, but did not disclose the information publicly, DNAInfo reported.
Years later, neighborhood leaders still want answers.
The chamber’s 16th annual Wicker Park Fest took place last weekend. Attendees were asked for a daily $10 donation. Money raised during a coinciding kids’ fest, presented by Jonathan Burr Elementary School, went to the school.
Proceeds from door donations, however, directly benefitted the chamber.
During the festival, Milwaukee Avenue between Ashland and North avenues and various side streets were closed to traffic.
Permit fees associated with the three-day street closure were waived by former Ald. Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st). (The city will waive fees if festival proceeds benefit local nonprofits).
When Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st) took office in May, his predecessor had already signed off on the permit fee waiver for the 2019 festival.
The alderman recently met with both the Wicker Park Bucktown Chamber of Commerce and the West Town Chamber of Commerce. Before sitting down, the Wicker Park Bucktown chamber requested the alderman sign a non-disclosure agreement, he said.
While the West Town chamber did not ask La Spata to sign a formal non-disclosure agreement, chamber leaders did verbally ask him not to share, post or publish what he learned during the meeting, he said. He agreed.
During the meetings, La Spata said he encouraged both chambers to be more transparent with the public.
“I think folks [would be] more sympathetic toward the use of public space for festivals when they have a sense of the risk and the cost involved,” he said.
The Wicker Park Bucktown Chamber of Commerce is not required to disclose financial information with the public because it is a 501c6 nonprofit, director Pamela Maass said.
“We can share that the proceeds from the fest are invested into our business community as we fund all of our 2020 initiatives, events, and programming,” Maass said in an email statement.
Teddy Varndell, a board member of the Wicker Park Committee, said forcing an alderman, the person responsible for signing off on permit fee waivers and representing the entire community, to sign a non-disclosure agreement was way out of bounds.
“An NDA for La Spata?” Varnell said. “He should have said, ‘You know what? Welcome to your last f-ing festival.”
Neal McKnight, secretary of the East Village Association, said the chambers are “running a business on the people’s property” when they present festivals.
“Why shouldn’t the financials of a public event on public property for the benefit of a public school and a nonprofit community group not be made public?” he said. “Sunshine is a great disinfectant.”
It’s not just neighborhood leaders speaking out against the festival.
Early Friday, a worker at a coffee shop on Milwaukee Avenue told Root that his businesses would close early each day of Wicker Park Fest.
“It’s not worth it,” he said. “Too many drunk, obnoxious out of control people, it’s a nightmare. We don’t even make money during the fest.”
The worker requested anonymity because he said he feared retaliation from the chamber.
Transparency not a ‘valid need or concern’
During Do Division, staged May 31-June 2 on Division Street, the West Town Chamber of Commerce requested a $10 daily donation.
The chamber explicitly stated the money would benefit the chamber, as well as A.N. Pritzker School in Wicker Park, LaSalle II Magnet School in the East Village and Columbus Elementary School in Ukrainian Village.
During West Fest Chicago, July 5-7, the chamber requested a $5 daily donation, this time for Talcott Fine Arts and Museum Academy in West Town and Roberto Clemente Community Academy in Ukrainian Village.
In 2018, it donated a collective $78,000 to the schools listed as well as some local nonprofits, a chamber representative told Block Club.
The chamber would not, however, disclose what percentage of overall festival proceeds actually go to each of the schools.
On June 20, Wicker Park Committee president Kyle Sneed asked the West Town Chamber of Commerce for more information on how much money actually goes back to the schools.
On July 11, the chamber’s Board of Directors voted on Sneed’s request. Chamber director Kara Salgado told Sneed they wouldn’t be sharing that information.
“The WTCC Board determined by quorum vote that the requester does not have a valid need or concern to address,” Salgado wrote in an email obtained by Block Club. “The statement of need was determined to be invalid as the concern does not pertain to our organization’s activities.”
If the board had voted to allow the Wicker Park Committee to review festival financials, the neighborhood leaders would have had to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
“Why wouldn’t the WPB Chamber want to proactively share the financials with the community?” Root said. “It’s like they are hiding something they don’t want us to know.”
Do stories like this matter to you? Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.